In Extra Lives, Bissell – a fanatical gamer and a grown-up – sketches out a critical vocabulary and a case for the merits of an art form he loves. First, though, he has to persuade his readers that video games actually are an art form. Bissell is one of very few people to direct serious video-game criticism toward a non-gaming audience, and sometimes he’s at pains to acknowledge shortcomings: essay ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Games’ devotes itself to games’ narrative failings. This relentless honesty is there to win over doubters, yes, but also to remind gaming’s cheerleaders of where the medium falls short. It’s an important move, but the author sometimes becomes tiresome as he dwells extensively on mediocre games.
Bissell’s writing is far more interesting (and more rewarding) when he focuses on how his subject fascinates him. A whip-smart writer, he is engrossed by the new artistic and narratological possibilities that gaming opens up to us, and his prose is never dry or academic – rather, it’s sweetly personal and engaging, even as it pushes its readers to reconsider gaming’s lowbrow status.
One book alone can only scratch the surface of what substantive video-game criticism could offer. But Extra Lives is certainly capable of changing the tenor of many an argument over the TV set.